THE WAY I SEE…OBAMA’S INAUGURATION
BY STEVE SIDDLE
We left the Boynton Bar & Restaurant in Worcester, MA at 11pm. Jonnie was cool to drive straight through to D.C., so I threw back a few Black Velvets and settled in the cab of his truck for a nap. It was cold and dark and I was completely unsure of what we would find when we arrived in our nation’s capital. I was unsure, even, of what we were looking for.
The College Park Train Stop was full by four a.m. so we had to drive past where we had planned to pick up the Metro and hope to catch a train from Greenbelt, the last stop on the line. If we couldn’t get in from Greenbelt, we couldn’t get into D.C. at all. We parked two miles from the station and hiked through the darkness with a few other hopeful travelers who had driven all night, drawn to D.C.
The trains were impossibly full. I remember thinking that we would never get on, but somehow we found ourselves packed into a train and moving towards the Capitol. We had no idea where to get off so we figured we would ride with crowd and get off at the last stop, L’Enfant Plaza.
L’Enfant Plaza is complex cluster of buildings centered on an underground mall and a cavernous Metro station. Deep beneath the center of D.C., the train station, designed by the Brutalist architect I.M. Pei, is unlike any other in the world. Jam packed at five am with one hundred thousand people it seemed especially surreal Inauguration morning.
It was there, deep in the catacombs ofAmerica, that I would learn the first and most important lesson of the day. There would be no moving through, or against the crowd. You are merely a very small part of much larger, much stronger body. Any inherent intelligence of the crowd is collective and cannot be controlled.
I lost Jonnie immediately and was thankful for it. It would have been a royal pain in the ass for us to stick together and I’ve known Jonnie long enough to know that we are men who move easier on our own.
Before long, the chanting began. As the throng of people slowly-very slowly- began making its way up the three stairways that rose to ground level, chants of “YES WE CAN!” rose and fell from crowd.
When I finally reached ground level and stepped out onto D St., the cool, fresh air snapped me awake and I began to feel the magnitude of the day unfolding around me. A river of Americans surged across Independence Ave., and although I didn’t see any cops, there were a lot of volunteers wearing bright orange hats and directing the crowd to the Mall. “You’ve Made It!” exclaimed a middle aged black man with a volunteers cap. He grabbed my hand as I stepped onto the frozen green expanse; “Go as far as you can brother!” he shouted as I was pulled away from him by the crowd.
At dawn the Mall had not yet filled with people and I was free to walk towards the Capitol. I found a spot by the old carousel in front of the Smithsonian Arts & Industries building. I sat against a tree and watched the sun rise over the Capitol Dome. Looking down the mall towards the Washington Monument, the western sky was still the color of an old bruise, but in front of me everything was becoming brighter and I looked at the faces of my fellow Americans as they became distinct.
It would be as useless to try to capture the color of Americans as it is to try to capture the color of the Atlantic Ocean. We are no more black, white or yellow, than the ocean is blue or the sand is brown. Yet there was something familiar in all of these faces. Something I had never recognized till now, but something that is deeply infused in the fiber of my being.
I watched Denzel on the big screen for awhile and talked to a few people who sat near me. It was a good spot and I hated to give it up but by ten a.m. I was frozen and knowing that I still had a long day ahead of me, I decided to walk back to L’Enfant Plaza and warm up for awhile.
The food court at L’Enfant was littered with Americans in different stages of undress. Children slept on mounds of coats and blankets. One man had taken off his boots and was massaging his feet. Every one of us had the ruffled, unkempt wild hair and eyes of a child who has just come into the kitchen after playing in the snow.
I sat on my vest against the doors of a Dress Barn and took out the book of Poetry I had carried with me fromWorcester. I flipped through Whitman,Dickinson, and Hart Crane hoping to find an American voice that might help describe what I was witnessing.
Unable to find the right lines, I returned to Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, a poem I have been trying to memorize since my birthday. As soon as I began re-reading I was interrupted by a young woman with a video camera. Tanya was filming a documentary for her class at Howard University and wanted to know why I had come all the way from Boston (she had recognized my Celtics cap) to watch the Inauguration.
By the time I had finished talking with Tanya I was revitalized and ready to head back to the Mall. It was a quarter till Noon and I had to scramble to get back in time for the swearing in ceremony. The Mall was filled well beyond capacity and Independence Ave was at a standstill. I was pushed back to 7th street and worked my way over a fence that people were hopping. I hopped two barricades only to find myself facing a wall of Port-a-Potties that blocked entrance to the mall.
I was about to turn back when a guy next to me grabbed me by the arm and said, “Help us make a way!” We grabbed one of the big, blue toilets and began sliding it out of place. For a second I was sure that we were going to tip it over and I would be crushed beneath a steaming pile of shit…not a good way to go. But my cohorts assured me “We got it! We got it!”
I slid through the space we made just as crowd exploded into a chorus of boos. Bush had been announced and the people around me were singing “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, Goodbye!”
The air was electric and people were climbing high into the trees and on top of toilets. The crowd surged forward and I knew that I had lost any hope of moving about on my own.
“Can you see? Can you see?” everyone around me was asking one another. “I can see you!” a booming voice kept responding behind me. Everyone was smiling at each other in a way that let each other know, “This is where you will be standing when history is made”.
The mass of people suddenly became silent and still. A prayer was read and the voice behind was murmuring, “Yes, that’s right, praise god.”
Suddenly the words of Tennyson I had been trying to memorize came to mind:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are,
We are- One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The world blurred after Obama was sworn in and as the helicopter carrying away George W. Bush flew over us, a cheer unlike any I had heard before rose like thunder from the river. It sounded like America.